Thursday, July 30, 2015

Madadayo, Used DVD's! - #7: Richard Linklater's BAD NEWS BEARS

And now for another movie that is having an anniversary (10 years) and one that no one will be celebrating...
Bad News Bears is one of those remakes that seems to exist for probably more personal reasons than actual full-blown monetary ones.  Oh, sure, Paramount had a series of Bad News Bears movies, not just the first one with Walter Matthau, but it feels like director Richard Linklater really wanted to make this movie.  Hopefully.  One can never know for sure; the filmmaker was also fairly fresh off from doing School of Rock, still his biggest hit, and also under Paramount, not to mention the pairing again of Billy Bob Thornton with Bad Santa writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa.

I went into this without any attachment to the 1976 film.  I had seen some of it on TV once, I think, and I mostly remember Matthau being his smart-assy Matthau self to some kids playing baseball (or not, I think, it might've been a dialog scene), all while having a beer can in hand.  This was, I felt, a good way to go into this new movie, to try and take it on its own terms.  And my other concern - about it having too much of the feel of 'Santa', which I think was really the reason I stayed away when it was in theaters at the time in 05 - wasn't that firm either: Billy Bob Thornton's baseball player turned coach isn't really much like his criminal-drunk-fuck of a character in Zwigoff's film.  This is good and maybe not quite so good.  Or not that it's not so good but just... different, in an almost safe way.  Almost.  Again, a kid's movie.

Butterworth (I think that's Thornton's name) gets brought on to coach a team of rascals and varmints, which makes sense as he currently works as a rat exterminator.  He gets his team as that of asshole, cripples, soft-sorts, immigrants, and one kid, the son of Marcia Gay Harden's character, who is the semi-victim of over-parenting in being in every club.  So, to start, Butterworth finds it kind of hopeless and fills up his O'Douls bottles with harder stuff, and watches his team lose, misterably (this is after, I should add, getting his endorsement for the team from a strip club, with said strippers as the unofficial cheerleaders).

This crappy baseball playing doesn't last long, however, and Butterworth finally snaps into it: he can either forfeit it all, quit, and give up the team now, or actually pull these little sons of bitches together (the kids try to quit first actually, saying they took a vote - Thornton's response, "This isn't a democracy!  This is a dictatorship, and I'm Hitler!")  Of course, the team ends up getting help from a damn good pitcher (his estranged daughter) and a damn good hitter (a younger/skinnier Chris Hemsworth look-alike, if that isn't him I'll be further damned).

No, not Linklater's other child as an actor in this one, but still naturalistic and, uh, stuff.

So, from the sound of all this, so far so good, right?  Well, the difference between a movie like Bad News Bears and Bad Santa is that the latter really is a filthy, take-no-prisoners comedy meant for adults and with a "hero" who is notable for how despicable he truly is, while the former really is meant for kids, or at least young teens.  It has what one might call a "Hard" PG-13; it skates just close to the line, has plenty of 'shits' but none of the 'F-word', and even a trip to Hooters for a celebratory dinner for the boys is almost kind of, I dunno, good natured.

It's a movie that has a kind of contradiction going on here and there, though not to necessarily a negative extent: it's an extremely sweet-natured rock n rollin' kind of movie with mischievous kids in some stereotyped forms and with an unrepentant asshole as the protagonist.  Actually, that's not fully it - what it is is that it's a studio movie, so it'll still have those rousing beats and moments that make it feel... well, more satisfied with making things funnier.

That's a strange thing to say for what is both a very edgy flick for children and a soft/fun treat for the adults, not to mention a decent baseball flick.  But I found the humor with the kid actors hit or miss - some of their interactions and wisecracking and back-talking could be hilarious and endearing even, or just fall totally flat, like a second rate cast of South Park characters - and even the sex jokes with Thornton's own world start to drag a little.  If anything the movie starts to get more interesting as Butterworth sobers up and has to lead, and his contrast is best with Greg Kinnear's character.

The character's least-punchable picture!
 Actually Kinnear is the funniest guy in the movie, the kind of Do-Everything-You-Can(TM) coach-dad who is probably total horror to have to live with day to day, and at one point during a game turns the entire field and crowd dead silent by practically abusing his son on the mound after a bad pitch(!)  It's the kind of performance that, whenever he pops up, makes the movie a little more cartoonish in a way - I could see this guy very easily on, for example, King of the Hill back in the day - but it's a very refreshing piece of satire that is recognizable and wonderful for kids and adults.  In a way, as strong as the anti-authority streak gets with the Bears and Butterworth, it's depicting this #1-Coach-Dad Suburban Monster that is the best part of the movie.

In a way it's strange as a day or two later the scenes that stick out from the movie I think of a little more fondly now than my experience watching it.  I had laughs through lots of it, I enjoyed the energy of the filmmaking (a shot where Thornton gets hoisted up in an audience at a skater-punk rock show is a sustained piece of pure entertainment), and in her handful of scenes Marcia Gay Harden has fun with a one and a half dimensional character.  It may even be a good movie.  Is it highly memorable?  I don't know.  It's like there are so many good moments, but the string tying them together is loose, even for a conventional sports movie.  And though the kids are good by and large, none of them stick out like Tatum O'Neil or Jackie Earl Haley (from what little I could tell from the original).

Where it ends up is satisfying, though, just for how it doesn't sugar-coat anything, and goes out on its own note.

Madadayo, Used DVD's - #6: Stephen King's DOLAN'S CADILLAC (Sorta)

 Dolan's Cadillac is a basic thriller that thrives on some primal emotions and broad strokes in the storytelling.  Broad strokes could mean that it's not so good - there's no nuance or subtlety to the filmmaking - or it could be good, if the filmmakers commit and get all they can out of it.  The first two thirds (or, I'll be generous, first half) of the movie is boiler-plate set-up for a revenge story, with a couple of details in the villain's whole bag that makes him so rotten that you can't help but want to see his comeuppance.  But in the last section of the movie... well, spoilers ahead I guess(?)

Set-up: two school-teachers are married to one another - Wes Bentley and Emmanuelle Vaugier - and are trying for a baby and, uh-oh, one day Vaugier happens upon Mr. Dolan (Christian Slater, in case the DVD cover won't make it clear) who is looking over his wares (women in a van, some already dead from just being in a dark place with no food, etc) and shoots the people selling them to him (hey, don't wanna mess up the merchandise, right).  Vaugier just barely gets away but leaves her cell phone behind.  Cut to some scenes later, a dead body is left in the couple's bed to send a message.  And another couple of scenes later from that - following a 'Oh, is she now pregnant?' - she's blown up in a car.

No, it's not Pet Sematary though, she only shows up twice.

So, in short: gangster kills a regular guy's wife, he goes desperate and depressed more and more with each passing day, gets a 44 magnum (hey, Dirty Harry had one, right - this even comes up in the gun shop, in a moment of amusement, followed by his wife's corpse telling him to get it in illusion form) and pursues him to incredible lengths.  How incredible?  Try becoming a road-worker just to get access to a road when no one's looking... hey, it IS called Dolan's CADILLAC, after all.

This was a direct-to-DVD release, and I wasn't sure what to expect.  Why did I even buy this to begin with at the time?  Christian Slater, maybe.  Wes Bentley?  It was during his career lull (it's picked up a little in recent years thanks to small but notable roles in Hunger Games & Interstellar, remember him in those).  Maybe it was the 'Based on a Stephen King' story.  Hmm... but there have been many, many movies based on King stories, and some of them, frankly, stink.  God forbid you go near a couple of those direct-to-TV series.  So with expectations that were just a notch above "Alright, let's get this over with", I was pleasantly surprised to find a half-competent-half-super-darkly-funny revenge thriller.

Wait, funny?  Why, yes, indeed.  The key here really is Slater.  He plays Dolan as a guy who just does not give a shit, and loves being, well, is evil the word(?)  It is to the point where Robinson (Bentley) talks in narration about Dolan with words that, I can't shit you about this, are basically lifted from those of Randall Flagg in The Stand.  Having recently read The Stand I found this amusing, but also rather odd; did King know the filmmakers were going to do that?  Has he seen the movie?  I imagine he gets around to watching them all at least at some point (that's the deal with his $1 deals with indie filmmakers), and not just the character description but his setting - a Las Vegas hotel where he has the best view of the city (as Flagg did) and goes about just not giving a fuck... well, who knows.

But the point is, the movie has some balls that really come to fruition once Robinson gets his plan underway.  Oddly enough, from what the DVD special features tell me, the story has an inspiration from Poe, in a story he did where a man trapped his adversary behind a wall.  This has a similar climax, and what is so impressive is how prolonged it is, how long it takes in this final battle of... it's not really brute force (though at one point guns get drawn and fired, it's brief), however, Dolan's Cadillac becomes about what the other expects and wants from the other.  How much can the audience take seeing the villain beg?  A lot, as it turns out, especially when it comes from Christian Slater.

Again, Slater is going into such over-drive with this character; a cursing, smart son of a bitch.  There is a moment, ever so brief, where you see the character have almost a conscience.  Or, if not that, some kind of pause, when he sees the next big step in his trafficking that may involve children.  Would it change Robinson's point of view about doing what needs to be done with the Cadillac in a hole in the ground?  Does it matter?  What really matters is how much this filmmaker likes making this desert setting in Nevada like a blazing, red-orange fire of hell (not to a Tony Scott extent, but close), and seeing how Bentley and Slater face off, shouting at one another through what is essentially a big, bullet-shielding tomb for the antagonist, is thrilling, exciting, and charged with the sense that anything, for this final half hour or so, is possible.

Bentley, I should mention, is good here too, though he's mostly stoic through the first part of the movie.  When he has to get emotional - which is, to be blunt, most of the picture - he does much better.  It's not exactly an acting battle between the two stars, as they both pull their weight and make it enjoyable.  There are the elements to the story you have to take with a grain of salt (how would no one else hear them in this final section, even during this weekend where supposedly few are around), and the section with Robinson and his wife is the most conventional and kind of cliched (like, we get it, he's about to find out he's a da-Nope, boom).

All in all, Dolan's Cadillac does its work as a nasty, brutal little B-movie that could have got a decent release; if not in major theaters, surely on some indie level.  It digs into the inner-darknesses of the hero and the villain, though more-so the former, to show what lays bare when stripped to the core of desperation, rage and horror.